Assessing the Cost of Old Resources

Have you ever been frustrated by management when they make, or seem to make, every decision purely on hard dollars? Naturally, it’s easy to blame everything on people one or two levels up, especially if it seems to revolve around money spent or saved. Recently I’ve been involved with more than one company where the old adage of “penny wise and pound foolish” really comes to mind.

I was at one client not too long ago and we were discussing the implementation of a new Radio Frequency system that we built for them. The typical issues of implementation, training, discipline and technology came up. They had just spent a bunch of money building a 110,000 square foot warehouse. New racks, staging areas, docks, and all the things you want when laying out a nice facility to handle stock.

We needed these handheld units, that fiber cabling technology, this truck mount, that bar code printer—the phrase was, “Tell me what I need and I’ll get it.” On the surface it seemed like a company doing the right things, the right way.

Then we did some training and assistance with some of the other departments that were having trouble with the application. One of my senior application engineers was working with a data entry operation who was still using an IBM original 5250 Model 1 terminal. Yes, you read right. One of the original 5250 terminals that today are good for end tables and coral reef projects.

The two of them were doing some training, and all of a sudden they lost the cursor. Lost the cursor, disappeared right on the screen! It took the two of them 20 minutes of messing around, laughing at the stupidity of it all, and finally fixing the problem by turning off the terminal in the middle of the application. When they turned it back on, the cursor reappeared and they went about their business.

After I heard this, I asked how often this happens. “Oh, two or three times a day,” was the response. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. After watching them handle the command keys, I remembered that the original 5250 did not have function keys, forcing the users to press the CMD key and the number, or the shift key and number to get the F key required—a real pain when you need to use all 24 command keys.

I estimated that across the company they were losing about 100 hours of productivity per week because of all the people still using bad terminal equipment. The equipment was paid for, but the cost of replacing the old terminals with new color terminals—the application was programmed for color, but their terminals didn’t support it—was thought to be too high.

That didn’t include the effort lost because they didn’t have the right software tools to help them. With a little training even the lowly query tool would have helped a lot. With some of the newer tools for accessing data, the productivity gains would be tremendous. So on one hand they were building this new facility and new equipment for the warehouse, but on the other hand they were keeping all that old equipment around. Their attitude was, “Why replace it, it works great!”

I wonder how the productivity gains and the morale gains would impact the business if they spent just a little on some newer equipment (or even used equipment) for the people spending all their time on the keyboards.

I get criticism from folks when I suggest that we let users get more involved in creating their own queries if they’re capable. Yes, I agree, many users cannot and should not do this. Yes, many users shouldn’t even be allowed to sign on to the system as it is! However, there is a real benefit to letting them get involved and getting them the right tools (i.e., quality terminals, PCs and software reporting tools).

Not all users are ready for the new world we’re giving them, and some never will be. Some are, however, or want to be if we’d give them some guidance, equipment and a little chance to screw up without smashing them with a hammer every time. Besides, the more they can do for themselves, the less we have to do for them. Hmmm, there’s a thought!

John Bussert is president of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company that specializes in AS/400 and Windows software.